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Displays of Chinese military vehicles carrying ballistic missiles at an exhibition in Beijing highlighting China’s achievements under President Xi Jinping. Photo: AP

China underlines ‘no first use’ nuclear weapons policy as it seeks stronger power to deter

  • China’s nuclear policy is the ‘most responsible and transparent’, disarmament affairs ambassador tells UN General Assembly
  • Xi Jinping’s party congress note on need for ‘strong system of strategic deterrence’ seen as a nod to bigger nuclear arsenal
China has reaffirmed its “no first use” nuclear weapons policy at the United Nations, even as signs of a build-up emerge from the top leadership’s report to the ongoing 20th Communist Party congress in Beijing.

Addressing a UN General Assembly First Committee session on non-proliferation, the Chinese ambassador for disarmament affairs, Li Song, underlined his country’s “solemn” commitment to no pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons “at any time and under any circumstances”.

“China has solemnly committed to no first use of nuclear weapons at any time and under any circumstances, and not using or threatening to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states or nuclear-weapon-free zones unconditionally,” Li told UN delegates.

“China firmly pursues a national defence policy that is defensive in nature.”

China’s nuclear strategy and policy have been long-standing and consistent, with a high level of stability, continuity and predictability that are unique among nuclear weapon states as well as being the most responsible and transparent,” Li added.

Li also called on the US and Russia, as nuclear superpowers, to continue to fulfil their responsibilities toward nuclear disarmament as the situation over the war in Ukraine had escalated in the past month.

This came after President Xi Jinping, in presenting his work report to the party congress on Sunday, said China seeks to “establish a strong system of strategic deterrence”, which observers read as wanting to boost the Chinese nuclear arsenal to deter major atomic powers such as the US.

Xi’s mention of ‘strategic deterrence’ points to China’s nuclear build-up

There was no mention of “strategic deterrence” in the work report presented by Xi at the last party congress five years ago.

However, the country has seen drastic changes in nuclear policy in recent times, with the 14th Five-Year plan released last year including aims to build a “high-standard strategic deterrent”.

It was the first time that the government had declared such a goal, in a marked departure from the previous “lean and effective deterrent” approach.

Then on Sunday, Xi spoke of the need for “strong system of strategic deterrence”.

The US has frequently criticised the non-transparency of China’s nuclear policy and also warned about its expanding nuclear arsenal.


US ‘deeply concerned’ despite China denying it recently tested hypersonic nuclear missile

US ‘deeply concerned’ despite China denying it recently tested hypersonic nuclear missile

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent call for China to engage in arms control dialogue was rejected by Beijing, with its foreign ministry saying such a call was not fair to China, as the size of its nuclear arsenal is “not on the same level” as the US.

The US and Russia have the largest nuclear arsenals in the world, at around 4,000 each, while China has 350, according to a Federation of American Scientists report earlier this year.

China’s UN ambassador for disarmament affairs in the 1990s, Sha Zukang, said last year that while Beijing should stand firm on its “no first use” nuclear policy, it should start considering some exceptions – especially when dealing with threats from the US.
The US and China have been locked in frequent defence stand-offs as the two superpowers reaffirm their strategic interests in the Asia-Pacific. This has been exacerbated by Washington’s increased emphasis on its Indo-Pacific strategy by uniting allies such as Japan, India and Australia, and its ambiguous position on Taiwan, which Beijing views as breakaway territory to be brought back into the fold.

While the US, like most other countries, does not see self-governed Taiwan as an independent state, it is opposed to any forced reunification.

What Xi Jinping’s shortened congress work report did not mention

Tensions have escalated in recent months, particularly over Taiwan, after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the island in defiance of repeated warnings from Beijing.

Beijing responded by conducting live-fire military drills on an unprecedented scale around Taiwan, prompting Washington to send an aircraft carrier strike group near the island “to monitor the situation”.

Another bone of contention is the Aukus deal, announced by Australia, Britain and the US last year, to help Canberra acquire nuclear-powered submarines. Beijing has slammed the deal as a “ blatant” act of nuclear proliferation and as yet another US move to contain a rising China.

In a Twitter post on Wednesday in relation to his UN speech, Li called on the international community to reject “proliferation acts such as Aukus cooperation” and proliferating “nuclear sharing” to the Asia-Pacific.